Redefining Game Narrative: Ubisoft's Patrick Redding On Far Cry 2

By Chris Remo,Brandon Sheffield

The argument that cutscenes are dead as a narrative form in games has been spread far and wide. The sense that we must push the medium toward a form of interactive narrative that is as strong and vital as the innovations in other areas of gameplay and technology has taken hold with many creators.

Here, Patrick Redding details for Gamasutra the work that he has been doing as narrative designer on Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2, which is due out later this year for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, describing how he and other members of the team have chosen to design the game for fully interactive, player-influenced narrative.

He discusses the bold change from the previous Far Cry games on console, which he was involved with, and a move which he believes will draw a line in the sand for the industry's movement toward fully interactive narrative.

[For more on the team-structure decisions  and code-sharing ethos behind the title, which follows up the Crytek-designed original and is an open-ended action title set in an African landscape, see Gamasutra's recent interview with engineering director Dominic Guay.] 

Chris Remo: With what you're doing as narrative designer, I was wondering if you could just start off with an overview, because the systems you're trying to work out are really interesting.

Patrick Redding: To kind of put it into context of Far Cry 2 - what does it mean to do narrative design? What is the function of a narrative designer on a large, open-world, highly-systemic game like Far Cry 2? I mean, really, my job is to kind of enforce the notion that the most important story in any game, honestly, is the story that the player can actually play, and can actually determine the course of through his low, mid, and high-level actions and choices.

And that in a highly open-world environment where one of the major pillars of the player experience is freedom, it becomes all the more difficult to sort of try to retain some kind of authorial control over the way the narrative progresses. And it's interesting, because even at his keynote at GDC, Ken Levine was talking a lot about the importance of shifting to more of a pull-based narrative structure, and BioShock is relatively linear, and it's still an important idea there.

Well, imagine in a game like Far Cry 2 where we don't know where the player is, we don't know what direction he's traveling in, he literally could have assassinated one of the main characters during the last mission. All of these elements end up making the way the story unfolds potentially extremely dynamic.

And if we had tried to not support that dynamic approach, what we would have ended up with is a story that really felt like it was kind of progressing along more or less independently of player action, as though the player couldn't really have any ability to affect its outcome. And we felt there was no point in doing that.

We felt like if we were going to bother to support - pretend like we were supporting - some kind of narrative component to the game, that we really needed to make sure it was a systemic narrative, what we call "dynamic story architecture", which takes large banks of content, chops it up into very, very small pieces, and then allows the systems to kind of deliver those pieces in a way that reflects the current state of the game's world.

And that sounds like a complicated thing, and sometimes it's insanely complicated, but there's kind of a simple underlying idea there, which is that rather than having an enormous tree of dialog, or a huge branching structure, where basically we can guarantee that a typical player only ever sees ten percent of what we've created, why don't we instead try to pick the right pieces?

Figure out the right way to break content down, for a dialogue, or for an animation, or for a scripted event, so that we can reuse as much of that content as possible and make sure that it can be used in lots of different locations with lots of different NPCs. And that's really the nuts and bolts of it. That's mechanically how we have to do it.

That means you need a game designer working at a dedicated role on the game design team, who's focusing just on that, who's really not principally concerned with whether the guns are balanced, or whether the vehicles are driving properly. And at the same time on the level design side isn't primarily there just to kind of help concoct missions, but is really there to try to make sure that every time the player feels like they ought to have a say in the way things are unfolding, that there's some system that supports it.

I was fortunate enough that [lead designer] Clint [Hocking] and the other leads and the technical director on the project decided that this was a priority. They were able to sell that internally at Ubisoft as being a priority in order to make an open world shooter work. And so I was brought in early enough that we were able to try to make that happen.


Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2

CR: You've spoken about your game, about the underlying metaphor, the kind of journey-into-the-darkness, Heart of Darkness, Conrad-influenced narrative, and all that. Presumably you've at some level you've got something underneath that drives the player along a narrative arc, or toward some kind of climax.

PR: Yeah. And it's thematic. What I've often said, and you may have - I know you've heard my talk at GDC, I mentioned this a few times - it's like I feel as though it's important to differentiate between the premise of the game, and then the story which is ultimately the thing that unfolds as a result of player input.

And to me the story is an output. And what we can say is we have a target for that output. We want the story to be about certain themes, and so what we try to do is pick a premise that supports that, and then also pick mechanics that support that. So it's about both data and programming, basically, if you want to think of it in kind of computer science terms.

So when we say, yeah, we want to make a game that's about one man's journey down the proverbial river into the heart of darkness, into the mind of a madman, what are the things that we can put in the game, what are the ingredients we can put in the game that support that? What are the kinds of characters, the kinds of environments that we want to try to create that will help support that?

Ultimately at a certain point we have to be willing to let those things go and kind of give control over those things to the player. But I think one of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?

And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer.

We just say, let's take the player as close as we can - or an analog of the player - put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.

These are all things that we try to let the player do, but since we can't know what's in the player's heart, we can't know what the player's thinking - and hell, maybe 80% of our players are just like, "Yes, this is great fun! I'm blowing stuff up and burning things." Maybe only a small piece of that message gets though. And if that's the case, that's fine. We've still built a really good shooter. But what we're saying is, for that percentage of gamers who are affected by these things, and who think about these things, we want it to be there.


Brandon Sheffield: It'll still make it more cohesive as well, just as a whole game, to actually have narrative that supports the gameplay, rather than gameplay supporting the narrative, like the gameplay is driving it.

PR: Right. Absolutely. Yeah, I think we spend a lot of time, and I spend a lot of time on the narrative design side, talking about readability, and it's still our biggest problem. It's still the thing I struggle with more than any other aspect of the game, is how well does the player understand why things are happening in the game world.

How well does the player understand the motivations - their own motivations as well as the motivations of the NPCs and the AI? How well can they read the reactions of characters? To me, that's vitally important. And we struggle with it, we continue to fine-tune it, we re-do things.

Like, to us, it's a really, really fluid and organic process, because so much of the game is systemic that, stuff that sounds fantastic on paper, you can implement it, or prototype it, you can build it. It might even work pretty well. You get it in the game, and you're just like, "Oh God, nobody can read this." Right?

So you have to be prepared to go through the pain of that process over and over and over again. And as you say, the function here is really to have, I think, a narrative approach, or a narrative premise that is really tightly integrated with the gameplay that we have in mind. The two should not be independent; they should really be developed in tandem.

CR: It does seem that your narrative is - from what you're saying, and also from what I've seen of the game - more of a thematically-driven thing. You've got a low-tech feel, a muted palette; the player has malaria, things break. Those do all seem to be sort of painted with the same narrative brush.

That maybe overrides a more traditional narrative in some ways, especially when you bring up things like the player can theoretically kill some major character in some mission because they're in the world. And you said you don't have really many spawning characters. That does seem to really put themes over plot. How do you actually write that? Do you ever have conflicts with writers?

PR: Oh yeah! Yeah yeah yeah. No, absolutely. But the good thing about it is that they're not conflicts over whether we should do it that way; it's conflicts over execution. And I should say they're conflicts in a good sense. Like, Susan O'Connor was really kind of our principal writer on the project. She's somebody who... she worked on BioShock, she's worked on tons of stuff, she's very prolific, she's award-winning. And she deserves it. Like, she really gets it.

She gets the difference between writing for this medium, and writing a screenplay, or writing a novel, or writing a stage play. And I think that what's awesome about that is that, yeah, like with the fights that we have, and we had some doozies, and points where we're like sending kind of, like, terse and heated emails to each other, I mean, it's over the right things.

And it's always about this idea, like I will say the story is about X, or this part of the story, this character is doing this because of this reason. And I think it's very reassuring in a way that she will push back and say, "The player will never understand that." Right? That's her point. And that's the right thing to be arguing about.

And I've done the same thing with her. She'll say, "Well, I really think that this and this and this is true, and this player ought to do this because of some previous thing that happened with them and somebody else." And I'll say, "Yeah, I don't think the player is going to get that, because up 'til now we've been telling the player this, this, and this."

So, I mean, I'm giving you kind of broad strokes versions of all of this, but I think the point is, is that, she and I were constantly checking each other on this stuff. And it was really, really good. It was a really effective working relationship for that. I think that there will always be games where the so-called narrative designer is also the person doing the writing, but I think that on a game like ours, with the complexity that we're talking about, with the amount of assistants that we need to try to give them notification on, I don't think it's a good idea.

I think it's a little bit like... the reason why a film director probably shouldn't edit his own movie. It's that thing of, you know, you fall in love with things because you worked on them, not because they're good. Or because the player will enjoy them. Or because it will help the player understand things you want them to understand. I think that there is an important dynamic there, and I think it's often a struggle, I guess, really on the higher level with producers and stuff to make sure you have the resources to have separate people doing these things. But I think it's a good way to do it.

CR: When you look at developers trying to do ambitious things, there's almost kind of two categories. You've got the developers who are trying to really perfect things that have been done, and really bring a certain dimension to that stuff.

Well then you have developers who do more or less what you guys do, in trying to solve problems. Take things that people have not quite figured out yet in game development and trying to do the first pass of it, and see where you can take that. Clint Hocking is someone that has done that, I think, multiple times in his games. How do you deal with that? That seems like a fairly nebulous area to go into, working for a big publisher.

PR: Yeah, it's a kind of a cultural value that I think that Ubisoft has been, if not 100% encouraging of, at least indulgent of. You know what I mean? Like, they're willing to acknowledge that this is a valid way of approaching that. Clint and I always said, from the very start, "Let's fail as big as we can on this." Let's take such a radical swing at this... let's put it all in and bet on red 12.

And honestly, if we mess this up, it will be one of the most useful epic failures of all time, because the shrapnel will be useful. There will be a lot of good forensics to have on this. Other developers, with whom we hopefully have a pretty decent relationship, just informally, they know what we're trying to do. We talk to them a lot about it. They appreciate that we're doing something that's risky, and that's ambitious, and also, hopefully, to the benefit of games as a whole.

And my feeling on the matter is, even if we don't achieve everything that we set out to achieve, I think there's a lot of really smart guys out there who are going to look at it and go, "Oh man, I see exactly what these guys were trying to do. That's really cool." And then they'll be thinking about it, and they'll have the benefit of having not spent three and half years on it, and they'll be like, "Oh, well why the hell didn't they just do X?" Or some super-programmer will come along and say, "Well why didn't they just build an animation system that did this procedurally?" You know, maybe we couldn't have done it, and they can.

So I think the point is, yeah, we're trying to raise the bar. I mean, it's often the case, as I think Clint found out going from the first Splinter Cell to Chaos Theory, that you have to kind of take your lumps on that first iteration. And you have to kind of just cringe your way through the parts that don't get to be as tight as you want them to be, in hopes that the message is delivered loud and clear to both players, as well as developers, as well as the publishers that, "Listen, whether you like it or not, this is something that needs to be done."

I think, like for example, I look at the use of the introduction of things like Euphoria for procedural IK, and character animation, and how it's been executed a couple of times in ways that I think are interesting but slightly gimmicky. And then a game like GTA can come along and use a very, very restrained subset of those features in a way that I think really adds a lot of verisimilitude to their game world. And I think that's really interesting, because that's a perfect example of that.

And maybe the one that kind of is the lowest-hanging fruit for some... but I mean, what I know is, given the amount of headaches that we've gone through trying to have a living, open world, that the next time we go about this, people are going to be hard-pressed to say that we shouldn't have some kind of procedural animation system, right? They're going to be like, "Well, yeah, that really seems like the right way to do that." And I think we've always kind of felt like it was, but maybe we didn't want to be the first ones to try it.

Here, we're trying to be the first ones to do the kind of dynamic story architecture applied to a first person shooter in an open world setting. And there's no way we would have tried this unless someone had done Deus Ex. Or they'd done System Shock. Or they'd done these other types of games.


CR: You've mentioned System Shock before.

PR: Well, I think that this is kind of a touch-point for a lot of us. I mean, certainly amongst first person games, they're the ones that have come the closest to sort of trying to do something that is really supportive of a narrative in an interesting way, with tight integration mechanics, a lot of emergent game play.

I think, as well, I look at games like X-COM and Fallout, that kind of classic, sort of action style RPGs in the western mold that kind of did an amazing job of making me care about my actions. Giving what Doug Church calls the "meaningful consequences" in terms of the choices that I'm making.

And I think that's something that I've... I really value that. I would rather play a primitive game that has that, you know? I'd rather play Ultima IV than play a Final Fantasy game that's beautiful to behold but which ultimately abducts me from the game every twenty minutes and shows me a cinematic. You know what I mean? And that's just my personal taste. I know some people who really love that stuff. It just doesn't happen to be the kind of game that I want to work on.

CR: Jumping off on that note, we kind of spoke about this at GDC a bit, but I liked your answers, and maybe I can just mine them again. Far Cry? I loved it. Great game. But, I think fairly obviously maligned for its complete lack of any meaningful narrative. What makes you think this game is an audience and demographic and franchise is supportive of your narrative ambitions, and how did you convince Ubisoft as well?

PR: Because we're trying to be subversive? No, I mean I think my feeling on the matter is that, okay, if we had just simply started out saying, "We're going to make a game. We don't know what genre it is. We don't know what any of the mechanics are. But we're going to make a game that has incredibly complex, rich AI, with incredibly real, emotional reactions and complexity in characters that can be either... they can be friends, they can be enemies, they can completely dynamically alter the nature of the story."

If we just started out with that as a goal? Honest to God, we would have just been stalled out at the start line. Because really that problem is more massive than anything else that's being worked on right now, right? It's like a full, rich, twisted, difficult AI problem that we're not going to solve.

So instead, what we do is, we say, "Well, can we take what is debatably one of the more lizard-brain oriented types of interactions, which is in the first person shooter running around and shooting guys, and can we make the mechanics of pulling the trigger and firing bullets sort of feed in at a low level into this kind of larger dynamic narrative approach?" And that's where the whole Infamy idea came about.

There's this notion that Infamy is this sort of the big counter under the hood that's driving the story to unfold in different ways. And the way I build my Infamy is by pulling the trigger. And by choosing to pull the trigger in a certain way, I can accelerate my growth of my Infamy. I can be a more cruel human being. Well, I mean, that's an easy fit for a first person shooter. I mean, a first person shooter that's about being a cruel bastard? Is not exactly a subversive idea. Right? And it's certainly going to be an easy sell to people who buy first person shooters.

But a first person shooter where being a cruel bastard results in meaningful consequences that affect the unfolding of the dynamic narrative? That's something that's pretty stealthy. The player who picks this up because they want to pay sixty bucks, and they want to have a good reason to upgrade their machine, and they want to headshot guys from across the map? They're not going to be necessarily thinking about that dynamic narrative. But it's there.

And if they encounter it in little doses, or if they end up embracing it a lot more fully than they even thought they would, then we've accomplished something. We got them to maybe challenge maybe some assumptions that they've made about the shooter experience. Maybe they walk away from it feeling a little weird, or a little different about what that game was like. I think that that's kind of what we set out to do.

I think, for us, Far Cry... like people always say, "Why even bother making this a Far Cry game?" Like, what does this have to do with Jack Carver running around with mutants on an island? I mean, the simple fact of the matter is, Far Cry is a Trojan Horse brand. You know? We can say, "Let's investigate something that's a lot more deep and meaningful and interesting and complicated, and let's do it within the framework of a brand that nobody has any expectations for." I mean, not to be totally blunt about it, but that's what it really boils down to.

We could fly below the radar there for a while, because everyone's like, "Yeah. Far Cry. All right. Yeah, it was a really cool PC game that you guys went and over-saturated the branding on through your console efforts." And what we're able to do is say, "Okay, that's fine. You just keep your expectations nice and low. We're going to go do this thing that's way more complicated than people are expecting." And I think what's cool about that is there is a sort of bait-and-switch component to it, and I don't think we're ashamed to say that.

CR: Obviously that Trojan Horse idea is fairly comprehensible, but do you think that the really impressive, frankly, level of simulation you guys are trying to do with the weapon degeneration, with the persistence, with the fire spreading, with characters not spawning in - all that stuff -combined with an expectation players might have after playing games, that they will get static cutscenes every twenty minutes - do you think that might scare players away? Is that something you have to try to work on in the balance?

PR: That's a good question. I'm trying to think the best... the relevant answer to that. Because the thing is, immersiveness just for its own sake, I don't think is interesting. I think immersiveness that makes people challenge their understanding of why the game works the way it does is useful.

CR: Clint spoke about this at GDC.

PR: Yeah, I think immersiveness that allows the player to use the attributes that he or she has as a human being rather than as a gamer is interesting. And I think that by kind of doing that, what we're doing is we're sort of... it's kind of like sticking a lobster in cold water and turning the heat on them. We're kind of easing the player into this world that is much more visceral, that is painful, and sticky, and sweaty, and dirty, and where shit rusts and breaks down, and falls apart, and catches fire, and where their own weapons can hurt them.

Like really kind of startling them every few seconds, we're giving them that stimulus that kind of sensitizes them to this stuff. And then as the story proves to be more dynamic, and more reactive to their actions, then they're kind of in that - hopefully - that moment of epiphany where they're like, "Oh, I get it. This world really is affected by my actions. It's affected at a very, very low level when I bump into things or set things on fire, or unjam my weapon, or yank a bullet out of my arm with a pair of pliers. And it responds at a high level when I choose to assassinate the leader of one of the factions, or abandon my buddies in the time of their need."

I think we need to ease them into that idea, and it may be better to ease them into that idea low-level mechanics that they're going to encounter from one second to the next, so that there's that kind of understanding that that's just the way the universe is working. I hope that answers the question.


CR: Do you think that this kind of thing is... guys like Ernest Adams have been talking about this for years. This modular kind of procedurally-generated narrative, and games should be doing this. They really haven't been. And a lot of people have been talking about it. And it seems like the natural way games should be going, but it doesn't seem like people try it very often. Do you think this is actually where things are going to go? Do you feel like you're on the cusp of actually driving something?

PR: Yeah. I guess even I, when we went to GDC, and Clint was there, and John was talking about the repetitious stuff on his side. I did my talk about narrative design. We were kind of shocked, honestly, that... personally, I would have expected that by now, at this stage that we're at, in this generation, that there would be a whole schwack of other people all solving the same problem, kind of at the same time.

And I fully - given the number of talks on narrative that were happening - I fully expected to have somebody show up and go, "Hey, look what we did." And totally just render moot everything we've been working on. And it never really happened.

GR: There was Façade...

PR: Well, maybe Façade is even a good example, because it's like... I know Michael Mateas showed up at my talk, and followed it, and was there. I only found out he was there afterward. Otherwise I would have been probably a little nervous. Because I had attended the Façade talk before, and I was just like, "Ow, my head hurts."

But yeah, I walk out of there, and Michael's sitting down with Clint, and they're having this super-in-depth conversation. And Michael's, like, super excited, and blah blah blah. And I'm, "Huh, I wonder what that's about." And Clint tells me afterward, "Well, Michael saw your talk, and he was going on and on about some of the potential of this approach." And I was like, "Yeah, but didn't he solve all these problems? Him and Stern solved this years ago." We're just kind of emulating it.

But I think that in fact, a lot of people have just kind of been gun shy about trying to tackle some of this stuff. And who knows, maybe when our game comes out, it'll be proven why they should be gun shy. Maybe it'll be like, "Yeah, you guys totally went down in flames on this." But I think that what's potentially - to get back to your original point about "Are things moving in this direction, or should they be moving these directions?" I think that they absolutely should be.

Chris Hecker did his talk about the sort of decoupling of structure and content. And his point about AI, like the fact that we currently lack a kind of Photoshop of AI, a way of intuitively authoring the behaviors that will ultimately make for a more robust and life-like in-game agent. And I think that that is at the heart of this issue. Right? We really need to be able to handle our story systemically. And that means we need characters that can behave systemically when we give them things to talk about, when we give them situations to react to.

The micro-narrative solution, which I think is a very good solution, at the end of the day still needs to be... it still boils down to the smallest indivisible piece of content. And right now, that's still - as I said in my talk - a piece of animation, a piece of recorded dialog, all of these kinds of things. Or even a state change in a state machine somewhere.

And the thing is, we need to get to a stage where we can make that smallest, indivisible piece of content as small as possible. So that ultimately we can build AI-driven engines that generate narrative.

But I mean, we're way off, I think, frankly, from that interactive fiction/fantasy, and being able to build... with all due respect to Chris Crawford, I think we're a ways away from being able to have that in a form that is readily applicable to games. And maybe he doesn't care, because he doesn't think games are valid anymore. But I think that we still are trying to develop this in the context of making games.

And I think it's going to be an easier sell to people if we start with something that they're somewhat familiar with, in terms of the form, and they're able to pick the controller up and run around and shoot, and drive, and all that and then start introducing these other more systemic narrative pieces, so that it starts to become an expectation. We want to raise the bar. We want it to be... we want to set the standard by which other games have to try to follow us.

And even if we screw it up, I think we want people to say, "Yeah, these guys were pointed in the right direction. That's the direction we should be going in." And who knows? It remains to be seen. Like I said, we're totally willing to live with the possibility that we'll only get a piece of that delivered. But I believe very strongly in this approach.

CR: How much more recorded dialog will this mean, really, versus a traditional script?

PR: That's a very good question. As a shooter, we have quite a bit. We're running in at about 100,000 words of dialog at this stage, which is kind of more what you would associate with an action/adventure title, or a small RPG. It's certainly a lot for a shooter. I'd have to sit down and look at the specific allocation of that.

The thing that makes us really different isn't so much the quantity of dialog. It's the fact that so much of it - like fully 80% of it - is handled through AI dialog systems, as opposed to through scripted events. So when I'm encountering guys in the world who just happen to be there, and they're able to serve up relevant content to me, they're drawing on a large pool of content.

The actual content that's kind of like scripted, in the sense of, you walk into a room, and the door shuts, and certain things happen - that represents maybe 120 pages' worth of script dialog, in the kind of classical screenwriting sense. So I don't know that it's necessarily a lot more content. I just think it's content that's delivered differently. It's chopped into smaller and smaller pieces, and it's put together more like Lego blocks, than it is like a typical scene.

CR: Do you think that normal players will notice that there is something unique going on narratively if they don't play it twice? Or will they just think all the consequences that occur are intended?

PR: It's a valid question. I think they're going to start to notice it when they realize that events are happening to them involving characters that seem like they have a lot more direct connection with the events of the game, than maybe a bunch of other characters that they've also met that don't seem to show up in those situations. It's a tough call. Honestly, I'm not sure. I'm not sure.

It may turn out to be one of those things that's a lot more clear to people on hindsight, or by conferring with friends who are playing the game. Or by playing again. And I'm okay with that. I think at this stage, it's less about being really flashy than it is about trying to create an experience that is at least fun, and understandable, and meaningful.

And if it's not 100% clear... I mean, honestly, I think if they're not able to differentiate between our highly systemic building block approach, and something that's a lot more scripted, then that's actually the least of our problems. That's actually a good problem to have.

Honestly, I don't think anybody's going to mistake these highly systemic moments for, for example, a scene from Call of Duty 4. You know what I mean? I think we're not at that stage yet. People are going to look at it and go, "Okay, that feels a little... a little mechanical. That's probably something that's been put there because of something that I did." And I think that's still probably going to be a factor.

CR: I remember a few years ago, I was talking to Michael Land, who was one of the LucasArts composers during their heyday in the nineties, and he did - his soundtrack to Monkey Island 2 was amazing. It was really procedural. It was very interactive and very cool. I was a music major and I was so impressed by that.


LucasArts' Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge

And I complimented him on it, and he said it was a very rewarding thing to do, but the problem was, it was done well enough that players didn't notice. And then it became hard to justify that expense in a game, if people were like, "Oh, it just had a great soundtrack." Is that something that you worry about?

PR: Probably I'm just about the worst person to try to judge this because I've been so close to it for so many years, but I kind of, at this stage, I tend to view this sort of dynamically-assembled narrative as kind of... it's a little bit like if you're looking at editing in film. It's almost better if they don't notice it.

It's not a hundred percent true. I still want them to go, "Wow! The story's really good in this game." Obviously. I think, at the very least, especially if you differentiate between story and writing, if you think of writing as the data that's generated in order to support the story, I think Susan did a great job. The other writers that we brought in - Armand Constantine did a great job. Kevin Short did a great job.

But the thing is, people will react, I think, potentially, to the writing, to some of the characters, in terms of the dialogue and the voice acting. They're going to either like it or not like it. Some of them they won't like, some of them they'll like. And I think that some people will tend to conflate that part of it with the story.

People, when you say, "Yeah, but that's not what our story is. Our story is all of these systems that allow you to do this and this and this, and certain things to happen," they'll go, "Well, yeah, but that's just your game." Right? And that's okay. I don't have a problem with them not being able to disentangle those. But I think that is a... that's a tough call.


CR: From a developer's perspective, it is kind of exciting, the idea of divorcing story from writing. That's something you could never do in any other form of entertainment, and for whatever reason, really, it's rarely, if ever, actually been done in games. That is kind of a cool thing.

PR: Right. In a sense, there's kind of been a weird and unfortunate development on that side, because, think about it, right? Writers in games just kind of got to this stage where they were able to make their point. Where they were like, "Guys, you really need to bring in good writers. Like, writing matters."

CR: A lot of people still don't believe that.

PR: Yeah, exactly, and so they kind of started the clock on it, and they're like, "Okay, now we have our window. Let's get in there and really be important, and start in there early, and get what we need, and get paid what we should be paid." All of this stuff that writers have been struggling to do in every other medium they've worked in. And I kind of feel like, "Okay, yeah, but now we're coming to the end of that."

CR: They're pulling the rug out from under you.

PR: Yeah! And now we're going to get to a point where it's like, "Okay, you guys realize that what you're doing is sort of the literary equivalent to being a texture artist." Right? And that's something I have to struggle with, because I don't want to say that to anybody. That feels patronizing, and condescending, and belittling to what is ultimately a very, very, very vital craft.

CR: Now you're offending texture artists.

PR: Yeah, exactly. There you go. I'm offending everybody. I will actually manage to piss off just about every discipline in this entire business with this one talk. No, here's my point. The art director comes in. The art director does not... he establishes a structure in which texture artists, modelers, character designers, 3D artists, level artists all have to follow certain thematic objectives and targets, and then be able to sit down and generate data that supports that. And that's what they're doing.

That's not to belittle it, but they are generating data in support of that target. Right? And my point is that writers have traditionally been people who tell stories, who construct stories, and narrative structure, and then build on that... and then, yeah, they write a bunch of dialog, and they write scenes that help reinforce that, and they iterate, and edit, and do all these things they need to do to make that stuff hang together.

And what I'm saying is, the problem, in a sense, we are taking away from writers, to a certain extent, the structural part of their job. Right? At least on this game, we are saying, "No. There is a narrative design that helps to kind of support the player doing what they want to do, and having meaningful consequences as a result of that."

The writer's job is to deliver the dialog, the scenes, the character... they still have to deliver that stuff. If we don't have that stuff, it sucks. Right? So it's still vitally important. Just like we have to have good texture artists. We have to have good shader systems. All of that stuff matters. None of it is more or less important than anything else. But, what we are doing is we are taking something that is in the traditional role of the writer, and we're breaking it out, and we're making it systemic, and we're letting the game handle it. Right?

BS: I don't think that's actually really... I don't think it's bad, and I don't think it's that different from how it is when it works well anyway. Because the writing has to match... has to meet the objectives of the game, and you can't just have someone, stream of consciousness, write out a story, and be like, "All right, now we're going to make our game."

PR: Well, yes. If you want to take it to its absurd limit, yes. But the problem is that, even if you dial back from that kind of scenario, that's not too far off from what a lot of game writing ends up being. It's like you get a game that's in production, where they go, "Shit. We're at beta. We need a story." Like, I mean, no joke, that really happens.

And so then they bring in some writer, who may be a great writer, and may even have done maybe a great game's writing, and say, "Okay, you need to help us make this good now." And they've been put in a totally untenable position. What are they going to do? All they can really do is write cinematics. All they can really do is write stuff that the player has no impact on.

And in that case, they're better have asserting a certain amount of authorial control, just so at least that stuff is good. Right? You look at GTA. I love the writing in GTA, but it's a damned talky game. They're still cutscenes. I'm still sitting through them. I can skip them, but they're still cutscenes.

CR: The interesting thing I was going to say about GTA in regards to what you were saying about... I think your texture artist metaphor is actually a really apt one because, looking at GTA, I think the part that is similar to what you describe is everything that happens when you're not in the cutscenes.

Like the dialog, when you're not in a cutscene, is essentially textural. It's essentially creating a texture within the world. As you walk down the street, and you hear conversations, and you bump into someone, and it generates something they can say, and there's all these, essentially actually a massive amount of dialog, that is embedded in the game that is not part of the core narrative. That's sort of what you're describing. You're extending it to the actual story of the game.

PR: Oh yeah. That's 100% correct. Yeah, I want the core plot to be delivered to me by me overhearing cell phone conversations while I'm walking down Mohawk Avenue in Broker during GTA IV. That's what I'm saying. And yeah, I'm still going to walk into a downstairs adult video store and still have conversations with people, but my feeling is that, as much as possible, there shouldn't be obvious seams between that content. It should feel like part of one cohesive continuity.

BS: The biggest difference with that metaphor is that you don't... players don't mind if they see the same texture a few times.

PR: Yes, in that situation, probably we are staring at literally 10 or 20 times the amount of content. But I think there are a number of technical hurdles we'll have to overcome to get to a stage where it's feasible for us to build out huge, huge, huge quantities of that stuff.

I mean, okay, let's abuse our texture art metaphor a little further. On Far Cry 2 one of the things that people have commented on is that, well, this is an amazing, large, open world, and yet you can walk right up to any tree, add incredibly close detail with your sniper scope, and see individual veins in the leaves. And you can see the bark, the texture of the bark.

And we did that - or Alex Amancio, our art director did that - by developing a completely different kind of graphics pipeline that put the emphasis, rather than having giant, high-resolution textures with lots and lots of data in the texture, on layers of shaders, using masking systems, and kind of procedural noise, that allowed us to generate very noisy, random, life-like kinds of detail in our rock, in our ground, in our leaves, in our vegetation, in our animal fur, and all these things.

CR: It's the opposite way that id is going with the MegaTexture thing, almost.

PR: Exactly. None of that stuff's going on there. It's the interaction that just kind of... it's super-pretentious for me to call it this, but it's this kind of highly granularized, fractalized sort of approach. But that's really the way it works. When I was doing the talk on narrative, I said a big goal for us is to offload the processing of the story to the player's own brain. Right? It's kind of like an exercise in distributed computing.

Players... human beings are predisposed to seeing stories everywhere they look. It's something we've genetically developed. It's part of our nervous system. We indulge in what's known as a "narrative fallacy". When we walk around and things happen to us out in the world, if we're listening to our iPods, and the context changes depending on what the soundtrack is. This is something that human beings just do, whether we are thinking about it or not.

And I think as story designers and as game developers, what we're trying to do is give the player lots of raw materials to help produce that effect. And I think that's kind of the same idea. We need to develop a new story pipeline and a new kind of story architecture that allows the player to supply a certain amount of the context, and also infer a certain amount of the intent, even if it's not actually there. Because we do that in real life, so we can apply it to our experiences in simulation, and in our work as well.


BS: I feel like writers are always writing to specific points they're trying to get to. But whether they create them, or whether it's created in concert with someone else, it's a different thing. But I think in a way it's better to have this kind of different scenario that you're talking about because, in that way, at least if the writer cares, they're involved in creating the game. They don't think, "I'm going to write my story, and you're going to lay it on top." It's not like icing; it's like flour. It's part of the cake.

PR: That's a good way of looking at it. Yeah, I know, and I 100% agree, and I think there's a couple of things that have to change, not only in terms of how we, as developers commit resources and prioritize story, but also in terms of how writers make themselves available to work on projects.

Okay, Susan is a great example. She's a contract writer. She's incredibly prolific. She is in amazing amount of demand. She's an award-winning writer that everybody wants working on their project. And for her, she has zero incentive to be a staff writer, because why would she? It's less lucrative, she gets to work on fewer types of projects, it's much more restrictive, she doesn't get the freedom to take time off if she wants to and work on other things. Like, having worked as a freelancer on my own, I know exactly why she would choose to go down that path.

Speaking as a narrative designer, in my fantasy world, what I have is a room full of writers that are on full-time. You know what I mean? And literally, I bring them in at the beginning of the project, and I release them when we go gold master.

Now, I don't... there's probably no producer on earth who would be willing to pay for that, outside of maybe the guys at BioWare, but even then it's because their approach toward story isn't the same as the approach that I would take. They're really about generating this encyclopedic quantity of dialog and trees, and kind of allowing the player to make their way through that. And they make a serious investment in that.

And I think that what we need are the writers that are willing to start out at the very, very beginning, become very literate in the game systems, like really procedurally literate, and therefore have a kind of innate understanding of the types of dialog, and a style of writing, that they need to be delivering in order for it to work in that pipeline. And I really think it puts an enormous amount of pressure on writers to be very adaptable and very flexible in their approach, but I think we're going to start to generate a generation of writers that have been brought up thinking about it that way, right?

CR: So one of the things that I can see as a long-term evolution... when you look at novels, obviously the person who writes the novel is the complete author, one hundred percent. You go to films - their screenwriter has a huge impact on the creative end, but everyone refers to it as the director's film. And that means the writing is in service of what the director's doing.

It seems like what you're describing is almost going one step further than that, and saying you've got the creative director, you've got whatever you have on the game. Games are different. They're more collaborative than a film, but the idea is the writing even, again, without being derogatory, takes another step back and becomes even more embedded into the overall fabric of the end result.

PR: Yeah, I see what you're saying, and my response to that is it might seem paradoxical, but I believe that the more that writers are implicated in the on-the-floor production process, the more they become part of that larger symbiotic sharing of disciplines, and knowledge, and considerations, and expertise that I think most game developers are familiar with.

I don't happen to buy into the auteur theory of game design. I just don't believe in it. I think our medium... it's an interactive medium, and also a medium that demands the input of so many disciplines, and so many different areas of expertise, I expect that our art director, and our lead tester, and a junior level animator, and the head of AI programming are going to have just as much impact on the way the story unfolds in the game as I do. I really believe that.

And I think that, as writers who are on the floor, who can walk over and have a conversation with a level designer, and help the level designer put into context all the challenges and things that they're trying to put in, all the game play they're trying to integrate into their maps, suddenly the writer has a much bigger impact than they would if they were like, "Oh hey, I'm just the guy who works on the story."

I think that by trying to sequester yourself in that kind of story box, that little, "No, I'll be in my scriptorium working on the storyline," I think that that is what isolates writers, and tends to kind of marginalize their input into the game.

I think that writers that are brought in and function much the way that every other developer in the game production works, who take an interest in all these others aspects of it, are going to find that they're contribution becomes that much greater. It just might not happen in exactly the way they thought it would. You know what I mean? I think it could be just much more layered. As you say, they could be the flour, as opposed to the frosting.

BS: Writers are often, in a way, kind of like the enemy of the team in many contexts, in the traditional structure, because they're writing something, and somebody's got to compromise. And so there's conflict there. It's kind of like trying to be the continuity director in a film, because you're like, "No, but in the last scene it was like this," and the director's like, "Don't care. Doesn't matter."

It's good to have them integrated, because then they are part of the team. They're not the enemy anymore. And taking your auteur thing to probably an extreme where you didn't want it to go, but do you then think that BioShock could have been made without Ken Levine, or Super Mario Galaxy could have been made without Miyamoto, or whatever?

PR: No. I mean, I don't know. I still think, yeah, there's always going to be exceptions, and it's hard. At the risk of pointing at specific... because the problem is like, it's friendly for me to point to those guys and say, "Well, those guys are exceptional. You can't make Spore without Will Wright." Yeah, that's the easy, low-hanging fruit. What I don't want to then have to turn around and do and say is, "Yeah, but look at so-and-so who tried to be an auteur, and how badly it failed." Right?

BS: See, well, the thing is, some people are auteurs, and some people aren't. We don't fire people in this industry, so people can just work their way up and be in charge of a project, even if they suck.

PR: Yeah, but I think it's a cultural thing, though, within the developer. I think that people who are accustomed to thinking of what we do as a subcategory of software development will tend to quickly neutralize people's ambitions at being the next Steven Spielberg of game development. I think that they'll say, "Look, dude, that's cool. It's nice to have a vision. It's good to be ambitious. It's great that you want to be a lead designer, or a creative director."

But I think Clint put it very, very well. His job is not to take credit for the parts of the game that are good. His job is to take the blame for the parts of the game that are bad. Because ultimately he's the guy that's got to sit there as big strips of the game are being de-scoped, and make sure that what's left is still true to the vision of the game, and is still going to feel like that game to the player. Right? He's got to hold that experience, that model of that experience, in his head. To me that's very different from an auteur, who's kind of coming in and occasionally micromanaging every detail as required.

BS: I think we have different definitions of what an auteur is.

PR: Maybe so, but I also believe that no matter what, it's still software development. If I'm a film director, just to use that example, like, if I'm Stanley Kubrick, I can say, "I don't need any fucking storyboards. I'm going to sit here for eight hours if I have to with my viewfinder until I find the shot I want.

And then after that? I'm going into my trailer and retyping the script." And getting twenty takes of my actors, or whatever. Right? I don't think in game development that's even an option. I think people have tried to work that way, and I think unless you have unlimited amounts of money to sort of placate people, I don't think it's possible. I just don't.


CR: There's still a scale, though. I mean, even in this industry, you've got guys like Tim Schafer, who wrote every line of dialog in most of his games, has his name on the box, and Fumito Ueda, who does Ico, and Shadow of the Colossus. But on the other side you've got Valve, who goes so far as to list everyone on the credits alphabetically and few titles. And then you've got everyone in between, and I think most people are probably somewhere between. That does seem to... and all those people have made great games.

PR: Yeah, and here's the thing. Obviously I'm being super...

CR: ...prescriptive?

PR: Yeah, and I'm disregarding the efforts of people who've done incredible work in independent game development, which is largely auteur-driven. I mean, debatably, a game like flOw isn't going to happen without Jenova Chen sitting there making that game happen. Right?

It doesn't matter who's working with them on it or not, ultimately, as good as the contributions may have been of other people on that, somebody needed to sit there and say, "Listen, guys. This is a game about flow." That's like an abstract idea, and to make that work, someone's got to hold that in their head. Yeah, I'm kind of being obnoxiously one-dimensional in my definitions of these things...

But in the specific context of writing, I think what I'm getting at is that authorial control, and the desire to cling to it, is a dangerous tendency in games. Because we're in an interactive medium, and our job is not to make the player feel anything, not to give the player an experience. It's to enable the player to do the things that make sense in the kind of metaphor of the game.

CR: That's kind of what I was getting at with that idea of kind of, novel to film to game, where you've got someone like Stephen King who, speaking of Kubrick, hates Kubrick's reading of The Shining - but at the end of the day, in film, the screenplay, or the original author's intent, becomes subservient to the film. A lot of people worked on it, but sometimes you've got the crazy auteur. And then that's what I kind of meant with games going sort of even further than that.

PR: Well, okay, you know where I'm going to be proven dead wrong, and so let me try to approach this with as much humility as possible. Where I'm going to be proven dead wrong on this, is when we finally support tools for the generation of systemic AI behavior that are so intuitive, like, as Chris Hecker was saying, essentially as easy to use as Photoshop, that are so intuitive that, at that stage, it really does become about generating a set of dialogs. And the AI has the intuition to do what an actor does, and do what a stage director does.

And at that point, maybe a writer can step up and say, "Okay, you know what? Let me just tackle this one on my own." You know? Which happens. It happens in film, and it certainly happens in other traditional media. Maybe we will hit that point where I can sit there and hold rehearsals with my AI until I get something that feels like the game that I want. I mean, I don't know.

CR: You've probably got a while before you're proven wrong on that one.

PR: Yeah, hopefully I'll have retired by then, or been committed to an insane asylum or something.

BS: How do you record dialog, when you don't know exactly when, or in what context it will come up, if that is indeed the case?

PR: Yeah, that's a really hard problem. In fact, the way we approach it is, it becomes a minimization effort, where we know that, to a certain extent, we are going to have to say, "Well, there are a dozen characters who could possibly deliver this information to the player. Let's see if we can build that scene as much as possible out of pieces that are reusable."

And that just involves an enormous amount of up-front planning. And luckily we have some pipeline... like we do have some tools for managing that. And then at that stage you know that maybe 10% or 20% of the content you record is throw-away. You know? It will never be heard. But hopefully the 80% will be usable elsewhere.

BS: Forgive me for not knowing this, but does the player-character speak?

PR: No. The player-character doesn't speak, and in fact this was one of the motivations we had for letting the player pick his avatar from the buddies. Because what that gave us was sort of the idea that the buddies represent kind of a mirror that we hold up to the player.

So as the player begins to understand that these are guys just like me - they're here, they have their own agendas, maybe they're even here to do the same stuff that I'm here to do, they're taking mission for the factions, I'm taking missions for the factions... The idea of that is that when I hear them talk, and I hear their back stories, and I hear the rationales that they give for doing what they do, I kind of see a moral spectrum there, and I know that I fit somewhere in there.

And as the player, hopefully I'm trying to fill that avatar up, as an empty vessel, with my own beliefs, and my own worries, and my own doubts. And that way I can kind of see how I fit in. And these guys represent a kind of a buffet of moral positions on that. Right? And that's the reason why. Because we didn't want to give the player-character a voice. Because, again, we didn't want to presume to know what was in the player's head.

BS: Writing to a character that doesn't speak, it's basically like writing a very long series of monologues, which is... it's strange.

PR: Well, yeah. It's super weird. Because everybody speaks in an oddly expository way. Although it has...

CR: Like Gordon Freeman.

PR: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Oh yeah, well, and that's the good thing about it. It's not like we were the first ones to do it. We can look at the way other things work. And again, because we were working this chunky modular approach, it gives us a little bit more freedom to be slightly more mechanical about how we deliver information to the player. So yeah, is the player going to feel like some of the dialogs are a little... odd? Probably.

As much as possible, we tried to offset that by having fairly naturalistic deliveries. Like, trying to get the actors to be very conversational. I mean, okay, is it David Mamet conversational? No, probably not. But we're trying as much as possible to... "Yeah, okay. I'm going to listen to this conversation. I'm going to get some essential information out of it. I'm going to get a sense as to who these people are, and whether I like them or not. And then the information is added to my objectives screen." Right? At the end of the day, we have that as our safety net.

BS: If enemies aren't really spawning in very much, do you have the ability to cleanse the game world of humanity?

PR: Well... no. We're not spawning enemies into active areas that the player is in currently. But there's enough fluidity to the world that... I think we justify the idea that if I leave a location, and I go across the map and do something else, and then I come back to that location a couple of hours later, that there are different guys there. I think we would not feel quite so justified in saying, "Oh, hey, he's not looking behind that tree. Drop a guy there." We won't go that far with it. We don't do low-level spawning. But we're willing, at a high level, to say, "Let's repopulate this location."

BS: It's seems difficult, just from a high-level perspective, to write, or to design a story for a game in which - or any scenario, really, although we do it all the time - in which there's a character in a world. Everyone is that character's enemy, and that character is still alive and going. It's very... it's an odd place to be, and taking a step back from it, it's like, how do you really write for that convincingly?

PR: Well, one of the central conceits that we indulge in is this idea that the two factions are kind of in a state of impasse. They're in a kind of uneasy détente. Neither one really wants to win outright, because neither faction wants to govern the country. So there's the sense of there being kind of like a low-level, low-intensity conflict, kind of on the boundaries between their territories. But the rest of the time, they're kind of guided largely by necessity.

So what that means is that both factions are willing to work with the player, in spite of the fact that he's occasionally doing jobs for the other side. They view him as a tool. He's effective. He's powerful.

As his infamy builds, they're even a little scared of him; they respect him. And I think the idea is really that, yeah, when you go into their turf, they're not warning their guys that you're coming, and telling them to leave you alone. You're still going to take a bullet from their side as well. But there is that sense that they're not necessarily in a position where they can just rally all their efforts to kill you, because they're also kind of holding each other off.

Like, if the player gets into a chase, and he leads - I don't even know if I'm answering your question, exactly - but if the player gets into a vehicle chase, and leads guys from one territory into the other, there are consequences to that. Like suddenly fights will be breaking out between AI, and all this kind of... So I think the feeling ought to be to the player that, you know, "I'm just one guy who's kind of weaseling my way around in this world." Right? And then later on, as the game progresses, he does become more of a target.

Return to the full version of this article
Copyright © UBM Tech, All rights reserved